Story location:

October 31, 2005

Guest Writer Ron Brynaert: Does the New York Times Have a Learning Disability?

"Why-the-heck-is-it that after six years, at least four major controversies, and two we’re-gonna-fix-it committees--each coughing up its lessons--the editors of The New York Times haven’t seemed to learn a blasted thing?"

Jay Rosen: “Take this guy, Ron Brynaert,” I wrote on June 5, “a tenacious (lefty, stand alone) investigator with an instinct for where information and proof and the jugular are. He’s a natural: Why isn’t he on someone’s I-team?”

Brynaert is a new type: the investigative blogger with clear political convictions who is scrupulous about getting things right, doing his homework, and finding what is hard to find. I liked his stuff, so I asked him to guest post for PressThink while I am taking a break to finish my book. He’s working semi-regularly for Raw Story these days. A fuller bio appears at the back end.

“There are articles we should have assigned but did not.”

If only we had heard something like that from the editors of The New York Times. After all, the controversy surrounding Judith Miller and her employers revolves mostly around what wasn’t published as opposed to what was.

But wait. We did hear that from the editors of The New York Times. But not in June or July of 2003. Nor in July of 2005. And especially not since September 29, 2005, when Judith Miller, after 85 days, finally emerged from a federal detention center, jailed for refusing to give up her source (or sources) for a story she never wrote.

The quote, “articles we should have assigned but did not,” dates back to September 26, 2000. It’s from an editor’s note called The Times and Wen Ho Lee, which – four years later - Jay Rosen would call the day the “modern era in transparency at the New York Times began.”

The editors explained:

In this extraordinary case, the outcome of the prosecution and the accusations leveled at this newspaper may have left many readers with questions about our coverage. That confusion — and the stakes involved, a man’s liberty and reputation — convince us that a public accounting is warranted.

Six years ago—weirdly, they didn’t call it a retraction or a correction, but an “assessment of the coverage”—the editors described five articles that they “should have assigned but did not.” This time all we really got was a reference to a July of 2005 “article about the role of Mr. Cheney’s senior aides, including Mr. Libby, in the leak case,” assigned but never published. Richard W. Stevenson, one of the disappointed reporters, was informed that it “did not break enough new ground.” But how are we to know if we never got to read it? Stevenson, a Times reporter, has a theory:

“It was taken pretty clearly among us as a signal that we were cutting too close to the bone, that we were getting into an area that could complicate Judy’s situation,” he said.

What do the people at The New York Times think of their readers? According to a column written just a few weeks ago by Public Editor Byron Calame, almost overwhelmingly, the Times News Staff believes that we’re primarily “curious.” That’s an image of us that makes sense to them: “Times readers: curious about the world.”

Well, many of us are closer to being obsessed with it. But if there’s one thing that we are curious about it’s why-the-heck-is-it that after six years, at least four major controversies, and two we’re-gonna-fix-it committees—each coughing up its lessons—the editors of The New York Times haven’t seemed to learn a blasted thing?

It’s as if there were no lessons. What’s even stranger is that the New York Times wrote the lessons down and published them in various places, and even made new policies out of them, which got press, or at least trade press… and then seemingly the Times forgot them. There’s a word for that; it’s… curious.

Could be a learning disability or something. Rosen in PressThink showed how similar the breakdowns were in the Wen Ho Lee case (2000), and the Weapons of Mass Destruction (2002-3) story:

Controversial cases involving national security. Times relies heavily on confidential sources in the government (with an agenda, like most sources.) “Star” reporters (Jeff Gerth, Judy Miller) involved. Appearing frequently but not always on page A1, the Times reporting goes further than the reporting of others because of what its sources, unnamed but highly placed, have said.

Over time, critics of the coverage start mounting a factual case and raise arguments against the body of work. The Times barely replies…

There’s the Times getting too close to government sources and trusting too much in the “inside” dirt. After Wen Ho Lee, the next key date in the “modern era in transparency at the New York Times” was May 11, 2003 when The Times chronicled in its pages the agonizingly “long trail of deception” left by the now-notorious Jayson Blair.

“It’s a huge black eye,” said Arthur Sulzberger Jr., chairman of The New York Times Company and publisher of the newspaper, whose family has owned a controlling interest in The Times for 107 years. “It’s an abrogation of the trust between the newspaper and its readers.”

But Mr. Sulzberger emphasized that as The New York Times continues to examine how its employees and readers were betrayed, there will be no newsroom search for scapegoats. “The person who did this is Jayson Blair,” he said. “Let’s not begin to demonize our executives, either the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say, the publisher.”

Actually, the scapegoat hunt proved to be more fruitful than the search for Saddam Hussein’s WMD since, shortly after, executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald M. Boyd followed Blair out the door (or off the plank). But Raines and Boyd deserved it because the problems didn’t just suddenly appear out of nowhere. Some critics blamed a bleeding heart need for diversity for the numerous breaks Blair received after his prior mishaps (Raines dared to say so, himself), but the real reason for the long leash probably had more to do with arrogance. Faulty or not, Jayson Blair was an official Timesman and rather than admit mistakes in hiring him (Blair had been labeled a plagiarist even before his Times tenure) it was easier to let him remain on staff.

Mostly due to Blair and partly because of a smaller imbroglio involving best-selling author/well-respected reporter Rick Bragg and his reliance on uncredited stringers (which led to his resignation, as well), The Times assigned Allan M. Siegal the awesome task of taking care of what looked at-the-time like an indelible shiner. But on July 28, 2003—not long after Bill Keller took charge as the executive editor—the Siegal Committee released a 58-page report which was more than a beefsteak but less than what most critics hoped it would be.

Some things changed at The Times. Even the toughest critics would have to agree. The two major recommendations were two new jobs, a public editor and a standards editor, and while none of the new hires (Daniel Okrent and Al Siegal, respectively…and three if you count Okrent’s replacement, Byron Calame) has proven to be a miracle worker, they have helped with transparency: clearer standards were supposed to help the paper stay out of trouble, and readers got a public editor who can get them answers.

The Siegal Committee also proposed that both new editors make smart use of Web forums. While the public editor has embraced the Internet (more true of Calame than Okrent) with a semi-regular blog that sometimes pulls comments in from readers, the standards editor has been MIA (though not necessarily by choice). An anonymous forum— overseen by the standards editor—where Times staffers could air inner-paper complaints was a good idea that was never implemented.

(Allow me to interject: how did Al Siegal manage to escape the wrath of staff for the damage done by Hurricane Judy? In a late August interview, Siegal explained to Calame: “I’m supposed to be the recipient of any complaints and misgivings by the staff about how we’re doing and what we’re doing, the person who adjudicates differences of opinion about how we should go about reporting and editing stories.” That was shortly after telling Salon, “If any member of the staff dissatisfied about our internal communication approached me, I would try to get some answers, within the limits of our necessary protection of sources, of course. But no staff member has expressed that frustration to me.” If none of the very unhappy Times campers complained to the standards editor about how the paper was handling the Miller case, then, sorry, the system isn’t working. In any case, Siegal has to retire next year, and his replacement will be Craig Whitney.)

Keller certainly seemed pleased with the Siegal report:

Without their work, I would be starting my tenure as executive editor looking back, doing damage assessment. Thanks to them, I start my job with a plan of action that will help secure our integrity and credibility, and make us a better-run news organization.

But “looking back” and “doing damage assessment” are exactly what he should have done. It didn’t happen. This resulted in what many of Jay’s left-leaning readers and critics view as the Times’ greatest crime: the belated and half-assed “apology” for “not as rigorous as it should have been” coverage of the prelude to war with Iraq.

Though not specifically named in the May 26, 2004, Page A10 article, Judith Miller and her reliance on “good-faith” sources were the key ingredients responsible for the slop.

And that wasn’t a newsflash to those of us who sometimes faulted the Times more than we did the Bush Administration: the ones who spoke the lies that Judith Miller transcribed. We were on to her before “shock-and-awe” entered the lexicon.

(Perhaps some strong-stomached blogger can someday take the time to pore through all of the ‘Letters to the Editors’ sections of The Times for the year 2003 and try to find if there was ever even one published complaint about Judith Miller’s stenography. I certainly wrote my share of unpublished and unanswered ‘Complaints to the Editors.’ I’m sure some of you did, too.)

And then came June of 2003, and there’s no need to get into that since most of us have the “entangling” dates memorized. Remember that brave admission from 2000?

“There are articles we should have assigned but did not.”

Even if Judith Miller didn’t end up writing a story about “the possibility that the White House was unfairly attacking a critic of the administration,” and whether or not she advised Jill Abramson to find someone else to pursue it, does it really matter?

Judith Miller wasn’t the only capable reporter at the New York Times. While it may be odd that a story wasn’t assigned to anyone after Robert Novak’s July 14 column exploded on arrival, it’s an absolute sin that no one followed up the July 17, 2003 Time magazine Web Exclusive, “A War on Wilson?” which Matthew Cooper helped write (and it’s not just The Times that slept on that one).

It doesn’t matter who’s being more truthful: Judy or Jill. Jill Abramson simply wasn’t doing her job if she didn’t see a story in the Cooper piece.

A few days ago, when Rosen threw me this assignment, he mentioned a few questions that I should explore:

Why should a news organization have to go through some of this again? Is this a learning organization, as in learning from mistakes?

One thing’s for sure: they do use that word.

On May 2, 2005, another committee headed by Siegal released a report called “Preserving Our Readers’ Trust,” and in one of the first paragraphs there appears the question: “What have we learned?”

And Keller writes Calame in an e-mail for use in his October 23 column:

If you decide to post our exchanges on the Website, perhaps this will help readers understand that we hope to learn from this experience.

We’re more than curious why these recommendations—which might have helped considerably during the disaster with Judy Miller—didn’t take. Here’s what the Times had earlier said to itself:

Or “watching the cumulative impact of not doing stories.” Point is: these recommendations were about speaking with us, the readers, when there’s big doubt out there about Times reporting, engaging with critics when there’s a newsworthy controversy, joining the debate and telling the Times side of the story when necessary, but also reflecting on published work, looking for patterns that might cause mistrust, opening up the lines of communication internally, peer-to-peer and troops-to-generals. This is what the Times counseled itself to do.

Was anyone listening?

Instead of speaking elliptically through insulting soundbites (or leaked e-mails to the staff), the executive and managing editors could have taken their case directly to the public from inside the newspaper itself. Next time around, The New York Times can’t afford to ignore for so long such a massive outcry, from not only bloggers but also their direct MSM competitors, even if fear of legalities are holding them back. And even if all the pundits march in lockstep with the reporters and the editorial page, The Times must make certain that opposing views are represented somewhere in the paper.

Or better yet. Perhaps if the New York Times won’t learn from itself it’s about time the place learned from us. And by “us,” I mean all of us: right-leaning, left-leaning, no-leaning, Times loyalist, Times doubter, Times cynic.

Honestly, I believe the best answer is to show them how it should be done; here and there, the blogosphere is already doing that. We can’t ever hope to replace the not-as-mighty institution, but maybe we can help motivate it.

And screaming, “Bias,” over and over again is certainly not going to accomplish much of anything. That’s the part of the lesson that many of us need to learn.

They learn, we learn, and then maybe we’ll all get to where we need to go – wherever that might be. All I know for sure is that that place ain’t here, with “articles we should have assigned” but did not because we the Times foolishly backed the cause of a reporter who was not adhering to our own standards.

Who’s going to bring me all those articles?

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Ron Brynaert on Ron Brynaert:

Born in Queens in 1968; grew up in Newburgh, New York; majored in Literature, minored in History at Syracuse University from 1986-1990. Worked primarily as a video store manager in New York City, as I pursued fiction writing on the side. I started my blog, initially, to promote a play I wrote - “The Rules of Embedment or Why Are We Back In Iraq?” - which had a few successful readings but was never staged. After the RNC protests I realized that I had a knack for investigative blogging - as opposed to just opinionated - when I broke a story about Bush’s connections to Project P.U.L.L. cofounder Ernie Ladd. Since July I’ve been part of the Raw Story staff as a researcher and occasional feature writer.

On Friday, Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. spoke to the Online News Association, defending Judith Miller’s decision to go to prison to fight the subpoena. While he offered regrets regarding the paper’s delay in owning up to the many mistakes made in its pre-war WMD coverage (“It was an institutional failure,” he said. “We didn’t own up to it quickly enough.”), Sulzberger soft-pedaled the public/press perception of Judy Miller’s Times:

When asked by a member of the audience whether he thought the Times’ credibility had been hurt by what the questioner termed its failure to fire Miller, he responded, “No, I don’t.”

He added, however, “There’s no question there has been an effect on the way people are viewing us because of this Judy Miller situation and because of the aftereffects of the testimony.”

“We are certainly trying to own up to that,” he said. “The story is not over.”

Asked after the speech whether he was referring to ongoing developments in Washington or the status of Miller’s relationship with the Times, he said he left that deliberately ambiguous and preferred not to be more specific.

In his speech, Sulzberger provided “seven points for modern journalists to follow,” three of which pertain to the relationship between the mainstream media and the online community. While he stressed the importance of doing a “better job of embracing the new virtual communities,” the MSM honcho couldn’t stop himself from taking another swipe at them:

The necessity of ensuring that strong ethical values are adopted across the media. It is important to remember that while we still have access to almost everything at our fingertips, we must be cautious and remember that not all writers online take journalistic protocols seriously.

A strange thing to say - at this particular moment - since it’s becoming evident that not all traditional reporters are taking “journalistic protocols seriously,” either. Publisher, heal thyself, first.

Rem Reider, editor and vice president of American Journalism Review, wrote a column, “After Judy,” which addresses the “learning disability” that appears to have stricken the Times:

Not long ago a journalism savant I respect a great deal made a very interesting point. He said he thought that USA Today had absorbed the painful lessons of the Jack Kelley scandal and implemented necessary changes. He wasn’t sure the Times had been as successful in learning from its mistakes.

Along with addressing “breakdowns in the editing process” as a perpetual mistake, Reider also hopes that the Times will learn to “level with its readers, consistently.”

Posted by Ron Brynaert at October 31, 2005 1:00 AM